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Mihalopoulos: Immigrants miss the boat in backing Donald Trump

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump at campaign rally at the University of Northern Colorado on Sunday. | Jason Connolly/AFP/Getty Images

Because Chicago is a city of immigrants, it’s not surprising Donald Trump drew a furious reaction when he attempted to make a campaign stop on the University of Illinois-Chicago campus last spring.

And the Republican nominee is expected to lose badly in Illinois in next week’s presidential election, due in part to his anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Still, what’s odd to me — as a North Side-born son of immigrant parents — has been to see that there are actually quite a few Trump supporters who have relatively shallow roots in this country.

In what we in Chicago call “white ethnic” communities, there are many children and grandchildren of immigrants — and even some foreign-born voters themselves — who pledge allegiance to Trump despite his xenophobic and narrow view of who should be an American.

In September, when Trump visited the Polish National Alliance on the Northwest Side, the hosts serenaded him a traditional Polish song whose lyrics include the line “may you live 100 years.”

The United Hellenic Voters of America, a bipartisan Greek organization based in Addison, endorsed Trump recently. Board member Mary Kyriazopoulos says Trump enjoyed the support of 97 percent of the group’s members.

Kyriazopoulos was born in Greece and came to this country via Canada 42 years ago. But she didn’t care much for my suggestion that immigrants could be offended by a candidate who has called for building a Mexican border wall and halting Muslims from coming here.

“You see what’s happening in the Middle East? You see that they’re massacring Christians?” Kyriazopoulos said to me in Greek. “If even 1 out of 100 [refugees] are ISIS, you know how much harm they can do to us?”

It’s almost as if some of my fellow Greek Americans and others forget that they too came from countries that were torn by war, including conflicts in which Washington’s role was controversial at best.

The family of Endy Zemenides, the executive director of the Chicago-based Hellenic American Leadership Council, left the Mediterranean island of Cyprus after an invasion displaced a third of the Greek population.

He said polls show Hillary Clinton leading among Americans of Greek descent. Those who now own restaurants or other small businesses “get the hives,” Zemenides says, when they hear political debate about deporting Mexican immigrants, who often are their workers and customers.

But he added that many immigrants have become more fiscally conservative and Republican as they’ve rapidly climbed the economic ladder.

Zemenides said Greek Americans and other ethnic groups that have thrived often forget that they too once were the targets of discrimination, even if the immigration laws were comparatively lax at many times in the past.

“I’m viscerally offended by anti-refugee sentiment,” he said. “We have to be more sympathetic.”

A meme that’s become popular lately argues that earlier immigrants assimilated as soon as they stepped off the boat, immediately swearing off any vestiges of their heritage.

In one version, there’s a black-and-white photo of dark-haired kids clutching American flags. Above the photo, it reads: “Legal Italian immigrants didn’t wave Italian flags coming into America. They didn’t riot and try to stop the election process. They didn’t try to make America speak Italian. They learned English.”

I’ve seen the same meme for Greeks and other European immigrant groups. It’s as if some white ethnics think those who came here a while ago were somehow different and more acceptable than the recent arrivals or would-be refugees.

I’ve never felt any conflict between being a loyal, proud American and maintaining a strong connection to my ancestral culture, including the Greek language and Greek Orthodox Christian faith. You don’t have to go far in the Chicago area to find good Americans of every religion or ethnic group.

Some might have seen my parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles as not so American at the moment they arrived, and for quite a while after they emigrated, maybe. I think we’ve done OK here anyway.

Indeed, it would feel un-American — or at least un-Chicagoan — to now deny others who have the ambition to come over and contribute to this city and country.